Posts filed under 'Athletes'

1819: Robert Watkins, Hang Day Fayre

Add comment July 30th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the bicentennial of the day in the national limelight for the Wiltshire village of Purton Stoke: the July 30, 1819 execution of Robert Watkins for an infamous robbery-murder.

Watkins, an impecunious bare-knuckle pugilist, murdered coal merchant Stephen Rodway to steal his boodle only to find that the diligent bourgeois had marked his banknotes as a failsafe making it possible to trace their subsequent circulation back to Watkins’s red hands.

So notorious was the crime in its day that ten to fifteen thousand people crowded into the small settlement to see the man pay his penalty, and on minimal notice: it occurred only two sleeps after Watkins’s conviction.

At an early hour of the morning, and at the time of the execution, the number of persons in the road and neighbouring fields was immense. That which was not seen in the prisoner, was evident in most of them — a fearful and breathless anxiety, a solemn stillness, and a deep expression of melancholy thought. There was in him a composure and resignation worthy of a better cause; and were not the proofs of his guilt striking, almost beyond example, his firmness of soul must have extorted compassion in all, and a conviction of his innocence. He was earnestly and feelingly entreated by the chaplain, and by some who were deemed likely to make an impression on him, to disburden his soul of part of its guilt by confession; but he was decisive in his denials of any participation in the deed, and only allowed that he was close to the spot where the murder was committed; in every other respect than that of confession, his behaviour was proper and becoming. Near to the fatal spot, the cart passed his wretched mother; he looked steadfastly at her for some moments, and with a gentle inclination of head and great expression of feature, seemed to take an external farewell of her; but soon after, on the cart stopping from some obstruction, she came up again, and he shook hands with her without losing any of his composure. On the scaffold he joined in earnest prayer with the same unsubdued firmness, and at his own desire, read aloud the 108th Psalm, “O God, my heart is ready;” and afterwards said to the crowd. — “God bless you all.” On the hangman’s adjusting the rope, he observed, that it could only “kill the body;” the action of his lips and hands showed that he was absorbed in prayer till the moment of his death. He was launched into eternity exactly at a quarter past 2 o’clock, and he died without a struggle. Almost at that instant of time, and before the last convulsions were over, a loud clap of thunder burst over the spot where the innumerable multitude had collected, and for half an hour afterwards, redoubled peals reverberated awfully through the heavens. The crowd, who behaved throughout with great propriety, then quietly dispersed.

London Times, Aug. 1, 1819

From the lordly vantage of some idiot execution blogger, this all seems like a pretty mundane crime two centuries later. But it’s still a lively enough memory in Purton Stoke, where the former site of the gallows is still known as Watkins Corner, that the town held a commemorative Hang Day Fayre in 2007, complete with a Watkins execution re-enactment.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1951: Sandor Szucs, Hungarian footballer

Add comment June 4th, 2019 Headsman

Twenty-nine-year-old footballer Sandor Szucs was hanged on this date in 1951 for attempting to defect from communist Hungary.

The defender for Ujpest FC, who had also featured internationally for the emerging national team juggernaut destined for legend as the Golden Team, Szucs embarked a politically dangerous extramarital affair with singer Erzsi Kovacs.

When the two attempted to flee the country together, they were arrested just this side of the Yugoslavian border. Kovacs spent four years in prison — she would go on to a successful international career — while Szucs was harshly sentenced to death as a traitor on the strength of a murky military law that had been invoked in no other case. His comrades from the pitch found that their pull did not extend to any effectual aid for him.

It’s presumed that Szucs’s execution was at least in part meant as a warning to these very same mates not to exploit the international team’s travels for any embarrassing defections.

If so, they were right to worry: when the Hungarian Revolution erupted in 1956 while the Golden Team’s primary club mirror was playing an away match in Belgium, several players refused to return to their Soviet-occupied homeland, including superstars Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Sex,Treason

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1943: Martial Van Schelle, Belgian Olympian

Add comment March 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Olympian Martial Van Schelle was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1943.

American-born, Van Schelle (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was orphaned by the sinking of the Lusitania and got his licks in on the Reich as a member of the American Expeditionary Force.

He later represented Belgium as a multifaceted sportsmen, competing in three summer Olympics, one winter Olympics, and the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race. (No medals.)

Afterwards, he went into business as a Brussels sporting goods merchant. Dutch Wikipedia credits him with building the first ice rink in his country and numerous others thereafter.

During World War II, Van Schelle bankrolled an underground traffic of refugees off the continent to Great Britain, until the Gestapo arrested him on January 15, 1943. He was eventually shot at Fort Breendonk prison.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1944: Werner Seelenbinder, communist grappler

Add comment October 24th, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing athlete Werner Seelenbinder was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1944.

An Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, Seelenbinder’s plan to scandalize patriots by refusing to make the Nazi salute from the podium at the 1936 Berlin games was scratched when he came in fourth in the event.

Nevertheless, Seelenbinder (English Wikipedia entry | German) had already by then given more material aid to Hitler’s foes by using his sportsman’s travel itinerary as cover to act the courier for the banned Communist party.

Arrested in 1942 during the smash-up of the Robert Uhrig resistance ring, Seelenbinder was tortured horrifically in prison but died with courage — as he had pledged in a last letter to his father.

The time has now come for me to say goodbye. In the time of my imprisonment I must have gone through every type of torture a man can possibly endure. Ill health and physical and mental agony, I have been spared nothing. I would have liked to have experienced the delights and comforts of life, which I now appreciate twice as much, with you all, with my friends and fellow sportsmen, after the war. The times I had with you were great, and I lived on them during my incarceration, and wished back that wonderful time. Sadly fate has now decided differently, after a long time of suffering. But I know that I have found a place in all your hearts and in the hearts of many sports followers, a place where I will always hold my ground. This knowledge makes me proud and strong and will not let me be weak in my last moments.

As a visible public person who died in resistance to fascism, Seelenbinder made for ready national-icon material in postwar Germany … but because of his red affiliations he was honored in this fashion mostly in East Germany. (Indeed, even a sports club that had been named for him weeks after the war’s end, in the American-occupied sector, stripped his name right off a few years later to keep with the times. The stadium was reverted to its Seelenbinder christening in 2004.)


East Berlin’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle was demolished in 1993 and replaced by the Velodrom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Entertainers,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Pelf,Public Executions

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1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

2 comments June 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Czech athlete and resistance figure Evzen Rosicky was shot with his father at Prague’s Kobyliske shooting grounds.

His country’s former champion in the 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, Rosicky had the honor of representing Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics … Hitler’s Berlin showcase.

Three years later, it was the Czechs unwillingly playing host to the Germans. By then, Rosicky was a journalist of left-wing proclivities (he was a card-carrying Communist) and he naturally segued right into anti-occupation resistance.

Arrested and shot along with his father, Jaroslav, Evzen Rosicky is the namesake of Prague’s Stadion Evzena Rosickeho.


(cc) image of Stadion Evzena Rosickeho by Honza Záruba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1703: Tom Cook, Ordinary’s pet

Add comment August 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1703,* Thomas Cook was hanged at Tyburn.

Cook — or the Gloucester Butcher, to use the sobriquet that advertised his prize fights — was convicted of giving a constable a fatal rapier thrust during a mob affray.

As he faced execution in prison, Cook continued to insist that he didn’t do it. But he still gratified the ministrations of the Newgate Ordinary Paul Lorrain by admitting to a life of sinfulness:

that he had frequently stoln [sic] Sheep, and done many ill things … He acknowledg’d he had been a grievous Sinner, a great Swearer and Drinker, an Adulterer, a Prophane and Lewd Wretch, and a sworn Enemy of those who were employ’d in the Reformation of Manners; and that for some years past he had made it his great Business to Fight for Prizes; an Exercise which the Pride of his Heart carry’d him to, which he now looks upon as most Heathenish and Barbarous, and which, with all other the wicked Practices of his Life, especially his slight of Religion, he does detest and abhor … and in the Words of a Dying-Man (who by the just Providence of God, came to suffer a shameful and untimely Death, in the primer of his years) he exhorts all those of his Acquaintance, and others that live loosely and particularly that follow this Wicked Sport of Prize playing, to reform betimes, and apply themselves to that which is virtuous and laudable, lest if they cdo continue any longer in their ill way, the Wrath of God fall upon them, and they come to the same, or worse Punishment thatn himself.

But still, he didn’t kill the cop, he said. (This, actually, was a common enough dodge among the Ordinary’s patients: it enabled them to satisfy the confessor, and the weight of social conventions he pressed on them, while also persisting with a denial of this crime one might be invested in maintaining. Whether true or no, Cook must have been unusually persuasive to pass off a story that would ordinarily be held to characterize an “obstinate” prisoner.)

Paul Lorrain, who held the Ordinary of Newgate office from 1700 to 1719, absolutely adored a good conversion story; his profession after all was ministering to prisoners. Lorrain ate all this reform-themselves-betimes stuff right up.

Two days after Cook’s execution, Lorrain compared the hanged pugilist to the Biblical patriarch Enoch at an overwrought funeral sermon (titled “Walking With God”): proof positive that even the most wretched sinner could taste God’s redemption. Cook’s “Soul is now enjoying an honourable and happy Life in God’s Glorious Kingdom,” Lorrain averred.

This was mainstream theology, but not a universal opinion.

Cook’s fellow convicts in Newgate regarded the repentant condemned as an unctuous hypocrite and didn’t share the Ordinary’s susceptibility to the actual-innocence claim Cook smuggled into his big confession of general lifelong sin.**

One of those fellow convicts in 1703 was Daniel Defoe, who met Lorrain while incarcerated and took a violent personal dislike to the prelate.

Defoe (who would later put a dismissal of the Ordinary in the mouth of his great heroine Moll Flanders) retorted to Lorrain’s published sermon with a scathing pamphlet titled “A Hymn to the Funeral Sermon”. In it, he mocks Lorrain’s racket peddling the public† broadsheets which almost invariably celebrate the gallow’s-foot conversions of his innumerable malefactors. After all, when

Men of Infamy should rise,
By Ladders to Ascend the Skys …
What need we Mortifie and Pray
If Gibbets are the Shortest Way?
In what disguise Religion may be drest,
The crooked Paths of Priest-craft Paint?
Where lies the Secret, let us know,
To make a Sheep-stealer a Saint?
Or bid me tell them that ’tis all a Jest;
What need they point out other ways,
Since Earthly Rogues can Merrit Holy Praise?
If this Wise Precedent the World receives,
Newgate shall ne’re be call’d a Den of Thieves.


Not related to Cook or to Defoe, this 1882 Puck cartoon (via the Library of Congress) makes Defoe’s same discomfiting point graphically: the soul of the hanged murderer ascends into angelic choirs, his crimes literally wiped away by his confessor — while that of his victim, slain unawares while unpurged sin weighs his conscience, wallows in hell. “The Murderer’s Straight Route to Heaven — Bringing Religion into Disrepute,” runs the caption.

* Cook had had a last-minute reprieve from joining a July 21 hanging date; in his account for that date, Paul Lorrain called out Cook by name to take “a happy Warning” from the right conduct of those gallows-birds.

** In 1706, two other men coming up for hanging made a point of insisting to Lorrain that the fighter who “with such an Air of seeming Repentance to his last breath deny’d his crime” did commit the murder.

† According to Lincoln Faller (“In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976), Lorrain left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719. His salary as Ordinary was something in the neighborhood of £35 per annum. Defoe overtly accuses Lorrain in “Hymn” not merely of profiteering but of taking payola to frame a gratifying obituary for a hanged criminal: “Pulpit praises may be had / According as the Man of God is paid.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to run Field to ground for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft

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1946: Chu Minyi, collaborationist Foreign Minister

Add comment August 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, China executed Chu Minyi for serving as the Foreign Minister of the wartime Japanese puppet government.

Chu was a nationalist dating back to the Qing dynasty, though he spent most of the first decade after the revolution at European universities.

He returned to China as a Koumintang supporter in the 1920s.

The guy had the bad luck to be the brother-in-law of notorious quisling figure Wang Jingwei, who enjoyed the title of President of China under the Japanese aegis.

For what’s generally interpreted as reasons of personal more than political loyalty, Chu accordingly agreed to serve in Wang’s cabinet as Foreign Minister. “Chen Gongbo‘s mouth, Zhou Fuohai‘s pen and Chu Minyi’s legs” was the government’s tagline. (Chu was also a noted martial artist.)

But it was Hirohito’s guns they relied upon, and none of them would much outlive Japan’s surrender. Chu was tried as a traitor in April 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Treason

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